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Students are suing the state of Michigan and their Detroit-area school district for violating their "right to read."

The class-action lawsuit appears to be the first of its kind, and potentially signals a new wave of civil rights litigation in the United States to enforce laws intended to boost academic achievement, education law experts say.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed what it has dubbed the "right to read" lawsuit on behalf of the nearly 1,000 students in the impoverished district.

Two-thirds of 4th-graders and three-quarters of 7th-graders in the Highland Park school district are not proficient on state reading tests; 90 percent of 12th-graders fail the reading portion of the final state test administered in high school, according to the complaint. Nearly 100 percent of the district's students are African-American.

"A child who cannot read will be disenfranchised in our society and economy for a lifetime," said ACLU of Michigan executive director Kary Moss in a written statement explaining the case. The lawsuit follows a "careful process of investigation that has made clear that none of those [education officials] charged with the care of these children ... have done their jobs."

One of the plaintiffs is a student referred to as S.D. An 8th-grader who has been in the district since 1st grade, his reading proficiency level is at a 3rd-grade level at best, the complaint alleges. Yet he "has never received any individualized reading intervention or remedial instruction from an adult" in the district.

According to state law, students who do not score satisfactorily on state reading tests in 4th or 7th grade "shall be provided special assistance" to bring skills to grade level within 12 months.

In addition to many examples of students whose specific literacy needs appear to be neglected, the suit cites general conditions in the district that interfere with their ability to learn - including a lack of books, terrible record keeping on individual student achievement, inadequate heat in the classrooms, and bathrooms in a state of filth and disrepair.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the district to improve such conditions and provide quality implementation of research-based approaches to bring up students' literacy.

Highland Park's two K-8 schools and one high school have recently come under the jurisdiction of an emergency manager appointed by the state to address the district's $11 million deficit. The state's most recent plan is to find a charter-school operator to run the district.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said officials had not received the complaint so it was too soon to comment. Efforts to reach the manager of the district were not successful.

"Everything we have done, and are doing, is to ensure that the kids of Highland Park Schools get the education they need and deserve," a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder told The Detroit News.

There have been many legal cases arguing that states have not adequately funded certain schools or districts, or that students' constitutional rights have been violated by being in de facto segregated schools. But this case takes a new approach by focusing narrowly on the core skill of literacy and a state law that addresses it.

The case is "potentially very significant," says Michael Rebell, head of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.

Michigan isn't the only state to have laws designed to bring up low-achieving students' reading or math scores, and often these laws are not being faithfully followed, he says. "Now that we're in a budget cutting era, a lot of states and districts are falling behind [on education goals] and this may be a wake-up call," Mr. Rebell says.

The case "represents the progressive potential of the standards movement," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington. "If you articulate certain outcomes [through education laws] ... then litigation like this is a logical follow on when students are not in fact meeting the goals."

But even if the ACLU prevails in court, "it's very difficult to provide that list of services [called for in the lawsuit] in a segregated environment, particularly an economically segregated one," Mr. Kahlenberg says. There have been many failed attempts around the country to retain quality teachers in high-needs schools, for instance.

Some initial public reaction in online news stories about the lawsuit included comments about the responsibility of parents in ensuring their children's literacy. One reason this district was chosen for the lawsuit was parents' interest in getting help for their children.

"I spoke out at nearly every public meeting and I went to school with my kids every day ... but nothing I do will work if the district and the state don't meet me half way," said parent and lifelong Highland Park resident Michelle Johnson, in the press release announcing the suit. Her 11th-grade daughter is starting her junior year of high school soon, but reads five to seven levels below her grade.

While the state has brought in the emergency manager because of a financial crisis, "academic results have been lost in the conversation about budget," the ACLU's Ms. Moss says in a phone interview.

In small communities around the country that have lost manufacturing or otherwise lost their tax base, "too often education reform efforts fall by the wayside," Moss says. Stakeholders need to come together to find solutions fast, she says. "We're graduating generations of children who cannot read."